Nicotine and cancer treatment: An unhealthy combination

We all know that smoking can lead to lung cancer, but did you know that lung cancer can be harder to treat if you keep smoking after you’ve been diagnosed? Even though this information comes from a study that was done in a research lab, and not with people who actually have cancer, the results are important: Nicotine (the most addictive part of cigarettes) from cigarette smoking may keep chemotherapy drugs from being able to kill lung cancer cells.

As a matter of fact, nicotine in any form could make lung tumors worse and harder to treat. This means that lung cancer patients who want to stop smoking by using nicotine replacement products – like nicotine gum, skin patches, lozenges, and inhalers – need to talk with their doctors before they start chemotherapy.

Using nicotine products and other anti-smoking tools

Withdrawal symptoms, like feeling depressed, anxious, tired, and hungry, can make it hard to kick the smoking habit. Nicotine replacement products can help smokers deal with these problems, but as we’ve just heard, they might need to be stopped before any chemotherapy starts. If you need help to stay smoke-free, other products — like some antidepressants — can help you to feel better and ease the urge to smoke. And if your habit has been a comfort when you’re stressed in the past, then counseling, support groups, and telephone quitlines might help you to cope while you go through this stressful time.

Strong reasons for people with cancer to stay smoke-free

Doctors have known for years that lung cancer patients who smoke don’t get as good results from treatment as people who quit. Smokers can have other health problems too, like pneumonia, respiratory failure (when the lungs stop working correctly), and the chance of getting cancer again. If you’ve been diagnosed with lung cancer, these are strong reasons to stop smoking for good.

Research has shown that the sooner smokers quit after learning that they have lung cancer, the better chance that they’ll still be smoke-free one year later. People who wait to stop smoking until right before their treatment begins, though, are usually the first ones to start smoking again afterwards. In one study of people with early-stage lung cancer, half of the smokers who quit before treatment were smoking again less than a year after later; 37% were smoking at the one-year mark. Other studies have shown a wide range of patients who go back to the habit: anywhere from 13 to 60%.

Lung cancer is the number one cause of cancer deaths for both men and women. There are more deaths from lung cancer than there are from the other three leading cancers–colon, breast and prostate–combined.

People who smoke don’t only risk getting lung cancer: They’re also at risk for lip, mouth, esophagus, pancreas, bladder, cervix, and kidney cancers. At this point, though, we still don’t know if nicotine keeps chemotherapy drugs from working on these other cancers, like it does with lung cancer.

A fresh start for family and friends

As you know, it’s often VERY hard to stop smoking, even if you’ve been diagnosed with cancer. If you have family or friends that smoke, though, this might be a good time to talk with them about quitting. Even if they make excuses (like “now is not a good time to quit,” or “I need to smoke to get myself through this”) give your support and encouragement: This may be the one time when they’re most open to the idea. So, speak up to your loved ones who smoke – even if it’s just to say that you love them enough to ask them to quit.


National Cancer Institute. (2003). NCI statement on nicotine study in January Journal of Clinical Investigation. Retrieved 7/1/08 from

National Cancer Institute. (2007). Quitting smoking: why to quit and where to get help. Retrieved 7/1/08 from